ISTANBUL — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Turkey this weekend as part of a trip the region. Syria is expected to be high on the agenda, as well as the ongoing efforts to mend relations between Turkey and Israel.
According to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, Kerry will be seeking to build on the current rapprochement efforts between two key U.S. allies.
"By going to Istanbul first then going onto Israel, the secretary will also have an opportunity to spur both sides to continue to take steps to deepen their normalization and work well together," said Nuland.
Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted an apology from his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu for the 2010 killings by Israeli commandos of nine Turks aboard a ship seeking to break Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. Israel has also agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families.
For its part, Ankara has agreed to take steps to unfreeze diplomatic relations - a process observers say Secretary Kerry will be looking to expedite.
Semih Idiz, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, warns rapprochement efforts will not be easy.
"There won't be much love in this relationship, because I think from the Israeli perspective, they look at the present government as Islamic and fundamentalist, and, on the other hand, from the Turkish, Erdogan and AKP [Turkey's ruling party] perspective, they look on Israel as oppressors of the Palestinians and generally as anti-Islamic and all that. But then there is practicality of the issue vis-a-vis Syria forcing them [to] push this ideological orientation to the background because the situation on the ground requires them to do so," said Idiz.
Idiz points out that the governments of Israel and Turkey, both of which share a border with Syria, have called for international intervention in the Syrian conflict. Soli Ozel, a lecturer at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, points out Ankara’s strong support for the Syrian opposition against President Bashar al-Assad means there is the potential for Turkey and Israel to work closely together.
"Turkey has already insinuated itself in the Syrian matter and it wishes itself to be in the forefront, and to make sure the new regime in Syria is not one that is detrimental to Israeli security concerns or even Turkish security concerns. I think these two can cooperate. Whether they will cooperate operationally, I don’t know yet; it depends how long this goes on," said Ozel.
Syria is expected to be a key issue in Kerry’s talks with his Turkish counterpart. Ankara is likely to press for arming the Syrian opposition. Reviving the stalled negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel is also likely to be on his agenda during his visit to Istanbul.
Diplomatic columnist Idiz says the thawing of relations between Turkey and Israel makes it possible for Ankara to play a positive role in those efforts.
"Now [that] it’s [Turkey] talking to all sides, there is a potential for Turkey to play a role," he said. "And I think Israel will want this, because Turkey can use its moderating influence on Hamas, for example."
The Turkish government has close ties with the Hamas leadership. But international relations expert Ozel warns those close ties means the current rapprochement efforts between Turkey and Israel is vulnerable to any major outbreak of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Let's not say hostage, but dependent on what goes on in the West Bank, they [Turkey's leaders] cannot turn their back to the Palestinians if or maybe when the third intifada erupts," he said. "If there is an intifada and the Israelis brutally suppress [it], it's going to be very difficult for the Turkish government to maintain its relations [with Israel]."
But Ozel points out there are also powerful economic considerations that could drive rapprochement efforts between Israel and Turkey. Israel is reported to be looking at Turkey as a route for distributing newly discovered natural gas to the lucrative European market. That fits well with Ankara’s bid to become an energy hub to the region - something observers say Kerry will be keen to point out during his visit to Istanbul.